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Spark Seminars - Exploring Justice, Together

Spark Seminars 2024

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Spark Seminar 2024

Spark Seminars are a unique opportunity for SCU undergraduate students to engage with interested peers around challenging questions, learn with faculty they may not otherwise meet, and get to know a University leader outside of their formal role on campus.

How can students participate?

Spark Seminars are open to all undergraduate students at SCU. We hope the wide range of disciplines and topics offered will provide opportunities for students to explore social justice topics that capture their imagination.

Spark Seminars are listed in Workday under UGST 100.

Seminars will meet once each week during weeks 2, 3, 4, and 5 of spring quarter 2024. 

(NOTE: the seminar Legacies of Resilience in the Japanese-American Community will meet during weeks 3, 4, 5, and 6 in spring 2024).

Courses are 1 unit and graded P/NP.

Enrollment will be kept small, so register before these fill up!

Downtowns play a central role in socially equitable, environmentally sustainable, and economically prosperous cities. However, the city of Santa Clara has been without a downtown since the 1960s, when it was demolished as part of “urban renewal.” To rectify its missing center, the city government recently adopted a bold plan for a new downtown adjacent to SCU’s campus. In this Spark Seminar, we will examine the city’s downtown plan in its larger context. We will explore topics including planning for climate change, transportation options beyond the automobile, affordable housing strategies, and university-city partnerships. This course will have a strong experiential element, as we conduct field work in the future downtown area and take one or two field trips to older downtowns (e.g. Campbell, Mountain View) and newer walkable areas near campus (e.g. Santana Row).


Wednesdays, 3:30 PM to 5:15 PM in DOWD 206.

April 10, April 17, April 24 and May 1.

CJ Gabbe

Associate Professor of Environmental Studies at SCU

C.J. Gabbe is an Associate Professor of Environmental Studies at SCU, where he has taught since 2016. He has a Ph.D. in urban planning from the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs and a Master of Urban Planning degree from the University of Washington. He brings more than ten years of professional urban planning and public policy experience to his research and teaching.

Khanh Russo

Vice President for Policy and Innovation, San Francisco Foundation

Member, College of Arts and Sciences Leadership Board

Khanh Russo's commitment to social justice is demonstrated through his professional experience in the public, private and social sector. He has held leadership positions with San Jose Mayor’s Sam Liccardo’s Administration, Cisco Systems, Silicon Valley Community Foundation, Kaiser Permanente, Ford Foundation and The Forbes Funds. 

As Vice President of Policy and Innovation for the San Francisco Foundation, he leads efforts to innovate and design public systems that center racial equity and economic opportunity. As part of Mayor Liccardo’s administration he established strategic partnerships and advanced innovation and data initiatives that improved education outcomes, workforce training, service and volunteerism, performance management and budget management.

Khanh obtained a Master of Science in Public Policy and Management from Carnegie Mellon University, Bachelor degrees in Political Science and Religious Studies from Santa Clara University, and was a Coro Public Affairs Fellow.


In 2024, the United States of America is painfully divided in ways that make it difficult to discern a path forward. Rather than dwelling on dichotomies such as “red v. blue,” “right v. left,” or “Republican v. Democrat,” this seminar focuses on whether it is possible to reach common ground – not necessarily “middle ground” or compromise, but the identification of common ground through difficult conversations across differences. The instructors will draw upon their areas of expertise in law, social justice, communications and journalism to focus on questions such as:

  • What is the connection between voting and civic engagement?
  • What can we agree upon as methods to discern whether information is truthful and fact-based?
  • What tools from the fields of communications and law can help us talk across differences in a truthful and productive way, and what can that process teach us about our own beliefs?
  • How do the constitutional rights of freedom of speech and freedom of the press help us gather and express facts and opinions to enable true democratic engagement?

This seminar is discussion-based, with periodic informal and anonymous opinion polls
and surveys used to facilitate communicating across differences.

Tuesdays, 3:50 PM to 5:30 PM in Alumni Science 301.

April 7, April 14, April 21, April 28 and May 4.

Margaret M. Russell

Associate Professor of Law

Professor Margaret M. Russell is on the faculty of the School of Law. Her
areas of expertise include constitutional law, gender and law, civil rights, civil liberties,
and restorative justice. She has served on the National Board of the American Civil
Liberties Union, and is a founding member of two social justice non-profits: the East
Palo Alto Community Law Project, and the Equal Justice Society.

Deborah M. Lohse

Director of Media and Internal Communications, SCU

Deborah Lohse has worked for the last 15 years in Santa Clara's University Marketing and Communications office, where she helps lead the University's media outreach and response, crisis communication, and internal communication. Prior to SCU,  she was a staff journalist at the Mercury News (San Jose), the Wall Street Journal (New York), and Money Magazine (New York and Washington, D.C.). A graduate of NYU, she lives in Campbell with her daughter, a high school junior.

A clean and ubiquitous electric grid can enable energy justice, widespread prosperity, and a sustainable future.  Investment in grid modernization can help underserved communities, reduce dependence on fossil fuels, improve energy reliability and resilience, and save money.  This seminar will examine the central role of the electric grid, explore the limitations of the current electric grid, and discover the path to an equitable, clean, and affordable future.


This section is not being offered in Spring 2024.

Maryam Khanbaghi

Director of Power Systems and Sustainable Energy Program, Electrical Engineering Department

Maryam Khanbaghi is the director of Power Systems and Sustainable Energy Program and associate professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Before joining Santa Clara University, she was at Corning Inc. holding several positions in research, engineering and manufacturing. She created and led Corning’s first-ever advanced control group serving all Corning businesses with cutting-edge technology to improve quality while reducing costs. She also worked several years for Pulp and Paper Research Institute of Canada in Montreal and Vancouver as a research engineer where she worked on design and implementation of different estimation methods and advanced control systems. She was the recipient of the NSF CAREER award for her work on grid resiliency.

Steve Eglash

Director of the Applied Energy Division and Interim Chief Research Officer at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

Steve Eglash is Director of the Applied Energy Division and Interim Chief Research Officer at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, where he manages research on energy and sustainability and helps to oversee SLAC's research and researchers. Steve is co-instructor of the Stanford course Value of Data and AI. He was a member of the City of Palo Alto Utilities Advisory Board. Steve loves working with students at SCU, where he is frequently seen on campus in his role as Chair of the Leadership Board of the College of Arts and Sciences.

In this seminar, we analyze structural factors that generate educational injustice with emphasis on the inequitable experiences of Black, Latinx, Asian American, and Polynesian students in schools. In particular, we will scrutinize school-based punishment and the school-to-prison pipeline as systems connecting America’s educational and legal systems. Understanding educational and carceral systems as complex and entangled, we (re)consider issues of educational equity, belonging, and accessibility. We will also interrogate the relationship between "progressive" education and carceral control, and discuss the importance of youth-led activism for educational justice.


Thursdays, 2:00 PM to 3:40 PM in Charney Hall 207.

April 11, April 18, April 25, and May 2.

Brita Bookser

Assistant Professor of Early Childhood / Anti-Racism, Department of Child Studies

Brita Bookser is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Child Studies with expertise in early childhood, educational (in)equity, and antiracist and liberatory pedagogies. She completed her B.S. in Psychology with a concentration in Counseling and Family Psychology at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo; M.A. in Infant Mental Health at Mills College; and Ph.D. in Social Welfare at the University of California, Berkeley. With students, Brita co-creates a learning community where all belong, and where standpoint, personal testimony, and transdisciplinary scholarship bear shared importance. Brita’s research investigates hidden dimensions of exclusionary discipline in early childhood contexts; structural factors that explain educational exclusion; and early childhood antiracist and liberatory pedagogy and praxis frameworks.

Michael Kaufman

Dean, SCU School of Law

The dean of Santa Clara Law since July 2021, Michael J. Kaufman is a nationally renowned educator, scholar, and expert on education law and policy. Kaufman joined Santa Clara Law after serving for 35 years at Loyola University Chicago School of Law. Kaufman is an award-winning teacher, public servant, beloved teacher, and distinguished scholar who has published more than 40 books and numerous law review articles in three key areas: education law, equity, policy, and pedagogy; securities regulation and litigation; and civil procedure and dispute resolution. Kaufman graduated from Kenyon College and earned his J.D. from the University of Michigan Law School.


Drawing on the instructor’s training in public health, health psychology, and communication, this seminar will expose students to ways in which different identity groups may experience vastly different outcomes, spanning the topics of public health (COVID-19), health disparities, and SCU student mental health.


Wednesdays, 3:30 PM to 5:15 PM in Vari 138.

April 10, April 17, April 24, and May 1.

Chan Thai

Associate Professor, Department of Communication Faculty Director, Cura RLC Chair, RLC Faculty Directors

Chan Thai joined the Department of Communication at Santa Clara University in 2016. She teaches courses on communication and technology, health communication, and the strategic design of communication campaigns to promote behavior change. Her areas of research include measuring the effectiveness of media literacy interventions, designing and evaluating nutrition education interventions, cancer communication, and using national data sets to understand population level health behaviors. Thai has a Ph.D. in Communication from the University of California, Santa Barbara and was a postdoctoral fellow at the National Cancer Institute. She received the College of Arts and Sciences Dean’s Service Award in 2018.

Melissa McAlexander

Assistant Provost for Strategic Initiatives

Melissa McAlexander joined SCU in late 2021 as Assistant Provost for Strategic Initiatives. In this role, she is currently supporting the efforts to transform mental health services at SCU, serving as an Inclusive Excellence Liaison, and supporting Spark Seminars. Prior to joining SCU, McAlexander was a faculty member and an administrator at Notre Dame de Namur University for 15 years, including serving as Assistant Provost for Faculty Affairs as well as Special Assistant to the President. She has a Ph.D. in Cellular and Molecular Biology from Baylor College of Medicine and a B.S. in Biology from Birmingham-Southern College.

The Jesuit tradition has a powerful history of advocating for justice, flourishing, and transformative social change. From the radical peacebuilding efforts of Dan Berrigan, SJ, to the Martyrs of El Salvador, who were murdered for lifting up the poor, the Ignatian tradition has much to say in a world marred by oppression and socio-ecological degradation. This Spark Seminar will discuss this history and consider what the Jesuit tradition has to say about specific social justice issues today, including economic justice, gender and racial justice, and environmental justice, as well as how the Ignatian vision of justice and flourishing bears on life at SCU today.


Thursdays, 2:00 PM to 3:40 PM in Alumni Science 302.

April 11, April 18, April 25, and May 2.

Paul Schutz

Associate Professor, Religious Studies

A native of Evansville, IN, Paul Schutz received his B.A. in English, Music, and Film Studies from Boston College and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Systematic Theology from Fordham University in the Bronx, NY. His research focuses on the relationship between religion and ecology, with an emphasis on how contemporary scientific knowledge grounds and informs humanity's relationship with the natural world and other-than-human creatures. A longtime liturgist and musician, his work also addresses the potential of Christian worship and biblical accounts of creation, life, and love for cultivating a robust praxis of ecological and social justice.

Ana Karen Barragán

Sr. Program Director, Immersions, Ignatian Center for Jesuit Education

Ana Karen Barragán serves as the Senior Program Director of Immersions. She earned her B.A. in Communications from Universidad Iberoamericana Puebla and her M.A. in International Studies from the University of San Francisco (USF) where she is currently a Resident Minister and is earning a Doctorate in Catholic Educational Leadership. Ana Karen is currently the Secretary of the Commission on the Role and Responsibilities of Women in the Society of Jesus. Prior to joining the Ignatian Center team, she worked at the McGrath Institute for Jesuit Catholic Education at USF and as the Executive Secretary to the President at Universidad Iberoamericana Puebla.

Ana Karen research focuses on the global mission of Jesuit Higher Education and the political trends against academic freedom and university autonomy in the Americas. She is also a member of the Latin American Studies Association and the American Anthropological Association.


This Spark Seminar will explore the ways that public art has helped to shape collective notions of identity at several key moments in history. Looking at case studies ranging from the Statue of Liberty, to the monuments of the Haitian Revolution, to Santa Clara University’s own historical markers, we will consider how communities have grappled with and commemorated their own pasts.  We will consider how contested histories are worked out in the public sphere through such monuments, and how they contribute to the construction of racialized and gendered  identities. As a class we will think about how individuals and communities find themselves represented – or left out of – these official narratives and how that impacts their own sense of identity and belonging.


This section will not be offered in Spring 2024.

Naomi Andrews

Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J. Professor of History

My teaching and research interests focus on French and European history in their modern global context. I am a historian of ideas, and I am particularly interested in the way human nature has been defined in modern times and how those definitions shape our understanding of sex roles, racial differences, citizenship, and social power. I currently teach courses on the history of gender, European imperialism, citizenship, and slavery. I also teach survey courses in European history and first-year seminars for the University Honors program.

Kate Morris

Acting Provost, Professor of Art and History

Kate Morris serves as one of two Acting Provosts at Santa Clara, working closely with many campus partners to support the academic mission of the University. As a Professor of Art History, Kate is passionate about contemporary art. She is especially interested in the ways that Native American artists express their relationship to land through their works, and how those representations shape our understanding of what it means to be Indigenous. Her book, Shifting Grounds: Landscape in Contemporary Native Art explores the many forms that landscape representation can take, and how these artworks are a statement of Indigenous presence.

In 1968, the Third World Liberation Front (TWLF), a collective of student activists in San Francisco, Berkeley and the Greater Bay Area, came together to organize a movement to decolonize the university. Today, decades later, students continue to advocate for diversity, equity, inclusion, voice and representation in higher education. In this seminar we will engage with these histories, as well as the contemporary experiences of student organizers and activists. Together, and in community, we will imagine the New University, engage radical hope, and pursue opportunities for solidarity-in-action to create a more just and inclusive SCU.


Tuesdays, 12:10 PM to 1:50 PM, Vari 128.

April 9, April 16, April 23 and April 30.

Jesica Fernández

Assistant Professor Department of Ethnic Studies

Jesica Siham Fernández is the author of Growing Up Latinx: Coming of Age in a Time of Contested Citizenship (New York University Press, 2021). As a multidisciplinary scholar, and community-engaged researcher, Fernández’s book explores the lives of Latinx youth as they develop their sociopolitical citizenship amidst in an increasingly hostile political climate that shapes their school, family, and community experiences of belonging. Trained as a community psychologist, Fernández completed her Ph.D. in social psychology with an emphasis in Latin American & Latinx Studies from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Fernández's scholarship and pedagogy are rooted in a decolonial feminist praxis that supports the development of critical compassion, sociopolitical wellbeing and abolitionist dreams among students, youth and community partners. Fernández completed a year-long course in Effective Teaching Practices from ACUE in 2019-20, and she received the Dr. John B. Drahmann Advising Award in 2020.

Shá Duncan Smith

Vice President for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

As Santa Clara’s first Vice President for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, Duncan Smith oversees the Division of Inclusive Excellence at SCU. She provides vision, leadership, and direction for SCU’s current and future diversity initiatives. Previously, Duncan Smith has held a variety of progressively responsible leadership roles at Swarthmore College, University of Michigan, and the University of Southern California Race and Equity Center. She has over 18 years of experience developing and implementing strategic plans and initiatives to promote diverse, equitable and inclusive cultures for students, faculty and staff.


In his landmark 1951 doctoral dissertation, Kenneth Arrow proved that no non-trivial social welfare function can satisfy Unanimity, Non-Dictatorship, and Independence of Irrelevant Alternatives at the same time. This amounted to a mathematical proof that there is no way to combine individual preferences (about candidates, wages, etc.) into shared societal preferences without violating one of three seemingly non-controversial fairness criteria. In this seminar, we will analyze Arrow’s ground-breaking theorem (now called Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem) and discuss some of its philosophical and economic implications. In particular, we will discuss ways in which notions such as “fair prices,” “just wages,” and “the common good” break down when defined hyper-mathematically. Finally, we will brainstorm ways to expand these notions beyond a mathematical framework and avoid the paradoxes that Arrow’s Theorem leads to.


Mondays, 3:30 PM to 5:15 PM in CASA 008.

April 8, April 15, April 22 and April 29.

PJ Jedlovec

Lecturer, Mathematics and Computer Science Department

PJ Jedlovec earned a B.A. in Mathematics and Economics from Vanderbilt University and a Ph.D. in Mathematics from the University of Notre Dame. He then joined the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science at SCU in 2018. He loves thinking about questions within math, philosophy, theology, social choice theory, decision theory, pedagogical theory, and the ethics of technology. In his teaching, he loves to talk about how the study of mathematics can make us wiser and more virtuous human beings. In his free time he loves playing guitar, doing Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and hiking as many California mountains as he can.

Aaron Willis

Director, Ignatian Formation and the Bannan Forum

Aaron Willis received his B.S. in political science from Santa Clara and then went on to earn a Ph.D. in history from the University of Notre Dame.  He returned to Santa Clara in 2015 to teach in the history department and is now the Director of the Bannan Fourm and Ignatian Formation. He works to make the comprehensive humanism of the Jesuit intellectual tradition accessible to faculty, staff, and students and to deepen the engagement with the Jesuit, Catholic character of Santa Clara University in order to build a more humane, just, and sustainable world.

In this seminar, we will explore how the Japanese-American community has lived through the legacies of historical injustices and discrimination. We will hear the stories of tragedies, perseverance, and triumph — not necessarily in that order. Through discussions and reflections, we explore how this history relates to us in Santa Clara and beyond. We will consider cultural influences such as food and art in the SF Bay Area.


Wednesdays, 3:30 PM to 5:15 PM in DOWD 314.

April 17, April 24, April May 1 and May 8.

Takeshi Moro

Associate Professor, Art and Art History

Takeshi Moro was born in Japan, raised in the U.K. and currently works in the San Francisco Bay Area. Moro studied photography at Rhode Island School of Design and holds a B.A. in Visual Arts from Brown University. He completed his M.F.A. graduate studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Moro’s work has been exhibited nationally and internationally including solo exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago and Serlachius Museot, Finland. His work resides in the permanent collection at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, as well as in various private collections. Moro was named a Faculty Fellow in the SCU Center for Arts and Humanities in 2017.

David DeCosse

Director, Religious and Catholic Ethics and Campus Ethics, Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

David DeCosse is the Director of Religious and Catholic Ethics and Director of Campus Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at SCU. He is also Adjunct Associate Professor Religious Studies, where he has recently taught classes on the ethics of war and peace and on conscience and politics. In the fall of 2016, DeCosse taught for a semester at Sophia University, the Jesuit university in Tokyo. While in Japan, he also wrote a series of articles for National Catholic Reporter in the United States on such topics as Shusaku Endo's Silence and recovery efforts in Fukushima Prefecture in the aftermath of the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami. He has familial connections to Japan and loves traveling there.

In this seminar, we will explore the benefits of gardening, including growing delicious vegetables, fostering community, and boosting wellbeing. Access to fresh food is a matter of public health and social justice, so we will discuss ways to support sustainability and empower people to grow greener. Let's meet at The Forge Garden, get our hands in the soil, tell stories, and share what we harvest.


Tuesdays, 10:20 AM to 12:00 PM in Forge Garden.

April 9, April 16, April 23 and April 30.

Melissa Donegan

Senior Lecturer, English

Melissa Donegan earned a degree in English from Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, and received her M.A. and Ph.D. in Nineteenth-Century British Women’s Literature from the University of Iowa. She has been teaching at Santa Clara since 2010. Her Critical Thinking and Writing classes investigate themes of home, stuff, and sustainability with an emphasis on epistolary texts. She also teaches “Writing Well(ness): Narratives of Illness, Loss, and Recovery,” an Advanced Writing course. She completed a year-long course in Effective Teaching Practices with ACUE in 2018-19. She enjoys hiking in the foothills of South San Jose, where she relishes seeing bobcats, coyotes, quails, Cooper’s hawks, and rattlesnakes, who remind her to slow down and pay attention.

Becca Nelson

Sustainable Food Systems Program Manager, Forge Garden

For the last 6 years Becca worked around the South Bay in sustainable agriculture and education. She's passionate about the connection between the land, sustainability, and community. Becca has worked as a garden teacher, an animal care manager, a farmhand, a forest school teacher, and a volunteer coordinator. She started at Santa Clara in March 2022 and is thrilled to be managing the Forge Garden, educating about sustainable food production, and working with students. As a kid she frequently came to the SCU campus for different events and is happy she found her way back to the Santa Clara campus as the Sustainable Food Systems Program Manager.